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France-China Relations: From ‘Special’ to ‘Strategic’?

By Wei Shen

28 January 2014

France occupies a special position in China’s foreign policy, due to two important historical events. First, former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders like Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yi, were among the 4,000 young Chinese who studied in France from 1912 to 1927. This page of history has left a strong hallmark on the CCP. Second, fifty years ago, amid the tension of the Cold War, France was the first major power in the West to have full diplomatic relations with China.

In the past five decades, the bilateral relationship has grown fast with joint statements on ‘comprehensive partnership’ in 1997 and ‘strategic partnership’ in 2004, but not without experiencing ups and downs. Is France still the special partner for China as it once was? The 50th anniversary provides both countries a good occasion to reflect and renew Sino-France relations in a changing global order.


The relations between France and China started more than four hundred years ago with the arrival of French Jesuits in China who quickly became influential in the Qing court. By the 18th Century, China had already become fashionable in France, especially among the ruling classes. Under Louis XIV's reign, the first ever Chinese-French dictionary was initiated by Acardio Huang, one of the first Chinese residents in France, and the personal interpreter to the ‘Sun King’. The French philosopher, Voltaire, was among the group of European Enlightenment philosophers who were intrigued by China. His sympathetic writings on China showed praise for Chinese civilisation, moral values and institutions. Chinese artistic and cultural influences were reflected in the Chinoiserie (a French word for describing ‘Chinese-esque’) movements in the various forms of decorative arts, interior designs and architecture in France and other European countries, for instance, the Trianon de Porcelaine in the Palace of Versailles. For Napoleon, China was a ‘sleeping giant’ who should be best kept asleep, otherwise, ‘when she awakes, the whole world will tremble’.

Charles de Gaulle also shared this fascination towards stating ‘China is not a nation or a nation-state, but fundamentally is a civilization, a very unique and very deep civilization’. President de Gaulle, pursuing his independent foreign policy, sought to build a ‘regular relationship’ with a ‘China as it is known’. In his view, China was a country with great potential, destined to be a global player with the transformative power for shaping the future, due to its size, civilisation and population.

Looking back, de Gaulle’s prediction on China’s future renaissance was truly visionary. Since 1964, France was the first country to start military exchanges, cooperation in the area of nuclear energy and initiate strategic partnership and dialogue. Franco-China bilateral trade was just around $100 million in 1964, now it has increased by 500 times, and is now worth more than $52 billion. Around 1,400 French firms are operating in China with a total of 4419 investment projects of over $12 billion. The French investment in China can be characterised by large bilateral contracts, especially in the aviation and nuclear fields, for instance, the China’s civil nuclear power plant in Daya Bay and purchase of Airbus planes. Thanks to China’s growing wealth among its middle class, more Chinese can afford to study or spend their holidays in France. With around 38,000 students in France, China is edging to overtake Morocco as the largest source of international students. Compared to the 10,000 student visas issued in 2012, the number of Chinese tourists in France has already passed 1.4 million, making France the number one tourist destination in Europe for cash-rich Chinese, with an average spending of €1,600 in France. 


How to handle the relations with China has become a challenge for every French president in the modern era. In 1973, Georges Pompidou became the first French and Western head of state to visit China. The presidency under François Mitterrand saw China’s human rights record and the 1989 Tiananmen student protest dominating the bilateral relations.  Mitterrand was one of the most outspoken critics on China’s human rights record and pushed for the European arms embargo on China. During the early 90s, Sino-France relations again suffered from the sale of French weapons to Taiwan, which resulted in the temporary closure of the French Consulate in Guangzhou. This tension later calmed down when France reiterated its One China Policy and prohibited the arms trade.

During the two presidencies of Jacques Chirac, China and France entered a ‘honeymoon period’, and saw rapidly growing political, economic and cultural links. During the Year of China in France in 2004, the Eiffel Tower was illuminated in red to celebrate China’s Spring Festival, and the following year of France in China saw France’s air force flew over the Great Wall leaving their emblematic tricolour contrails in Beijing’s sky. Contrary to Chirac’s pro-Asia foreign policy, Nicolas Sarkozy’s approach to China was more paradoxical. In 2008, China’s political goodwill gesture in bringing the Beijing Olympic Torch relay to Paris was met with massive pro-Tibet demonstrations, and the chaos in Paris consequently led to massive protests and boycott against French products in China. The fragile bilateral relations were further impacted by Sarkozy’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama which resulted in the cancellation of the EU-China Summit at the last minute.


In Confucius words, the age of 50 is the moment to understand the destiny and make necessary changes or adaptations. It is also true for the relations between China and Europe. Being permanent members of UN Security Council, China and France are global players and shoulder major responsibilities. But there are still great challenges ahead. Firstly, the trade deficit is increasing though the growth of French exports to China outpaces China’s exports to France by three times. According to the French Government, there is a staggering trade deficit of nearly $36 billion in 2011. This economic pressure is also reflected in public opinion. The latest PewResearch Global Attitudes Project’s result in 2013 shows that only 42% of French interviewees hold a favourable view of China, 5% less than in 2006’s survey. It is not surprising that François Hollande has made economic diplomacy as his priority for foreign policy, including relations with China. During his 2013 visit to China, Hollande was accompanied by an entourage of French businessmen and secured several big contracts. Though being still modest, Chinese outward investment is also catching up, currently estimated at $1.8 billion by the Chinese Government, it has created over 9,000 jobs France.

The Golden Jubilee of Sino-France Relations reminds us the important historical significance of this bilateral relation, but can we still call this relationship a privileged one? France is still one of the few handful countries to have a vice-ministerial level ambassador in Paris, an indicator of diplomatic importance. The 38,000 students at Alliance Française and 10,000 secondary and university students studying French in China and 32,000 French secondary school students studying Chinese (8 times as number in 2001) once again confirm the mutual interests among the younger population in both countries.

China is no long a developing country as it was fifty years ago. As the world’s second largest economy, its foreign policy interests have far stretched to faraway places in Africa and Latin America. While the US and Asia will remain the foci of China’s foreign policy, there is still great potential for France-China relations, especially taking account of France’s existing influence in the European Union and Africa. Though cooperation and competition will undoubtedly be a re-occurring theme in economic and trade relations, both France and China would need to renew the strategic partnership by exploiting economic complementarities especially in areas like energy, aviation, nuclear, tourism, financial services, environmental protection and sustainable urbanisation. Last but not least, both parties must intensify efforts for people-to-people exchange and dialogues between civil societies, to reduce prejudices and enhance mutual understanding.

Professor Wei SHEN is Vice-President at the EU-Asia Centre and Jean Monnet Chair Professor in EU-China Relations &  Associate Dean for China at the ESSCA School of Management, Angers, France.